[Update: If you make your outbound Gizmo5 calls from the Google Voice website, they are completely free even past the first 3 minutes. Gizmo seems to treat it as an incoming call because Google is technically calling Gizmo when you use that method. That means both the incoming and outgoing calls form your PC are completely free all the time. I'm not sure if this is intentional or if it will last, but that's the story for now.]
If you haven't heard about Google Voice yet, it's time you did. This new service not only provides you with amazing new options for managing your phone communications, but it also has the potential to save you a lot of money. In this blog post, I'm going to explain the basics of Google Voice and then give some examples of ways to improve the cost effectiveness of your phone plan.
When you sign up for a Google Voice account you will choose a phone number. This number can be used as a middle man between all your phone numbers and the outside world. If someone calls your Google Voice number, GV will make a call to all the phones you've registered on the account. Whichever phone picks up first is the one that ends up taking the call. It's sort of like having all the land phones in your house ring when someone calls your land line. This is why people have called the GV number "one number to rule them all." Of course, you can make outgoing calls from your GV number using any of your phones. Text messaging is also fully supported.
If you use Google Voice for calls from anywhere within the mainland US to anywhere within the mainland US, everything is free. They charge small rates for international calls, but I'm not going to get into that here.
Now for the really cool part. There's this SIP service called Gizmo5. It is currently the only SIP service that Google Voice supports. What it basically allows you to do is make Google Voice calls with any internet-capable device. You will need to sign up for a Gizmo5 account and apply the proper configuration settings to both your Google Voice and Gizmo5 accounts. It's not too difficult.
Gizmo doesn't charge anything for incoming calls. However, they do limit your outgoing Google Voice calls to 3 minutes free. If you want the outgoing calls to last longer than 3 minutes, you can purchase additional minutes for what I believe is currently 2c/min. In order to set up Gizmo on your internet-capable device, you will need to install a SIP client. Gizmo has one that you can download from their site, and it works on Linux, Mac, and Windows. Gizmo uses open standards so you have the option of using other SIP clients to hook up to your Gizmo account.
Let's now consider a few options for saving money.
1) The Gazelle Intense Method (as Dave Ramsey would put it)
Forget paying for cell phones or land lines. Assuming you have a home internet connection, your computer can be your new home phone. Sign up for Google Voice and Gizmo5 and install a SIP client on your computer. With the client running as a background program, your computer will "ring" whenever someone calls your GV number. You can also use the SIP client to make outgoing calls. You'll even have unlimited text messaging. With a microphone or headset, you'll be good to go.
What you're paying for here is the regular fee for your home internet connection, the power to keep your computer running, and the occasional cost of outgoing calls that last longer than 3 minutes. You can avoid the latter by asking your friends to call you back. There's also the one-time cost of a headset or microphone if you don't have one already. This solution is obviously not the most convenient because your computers are your only phones, but it's practically free. If you're running on a tight budget and are willing to give up a little freedom in order to make ends meet, it's worth considering. The best part is that you can easily eat your beans 'n' rice when you don't have to hold a phone to your ear!
Detailed instructions can be found here.
2) The Voiceless Method
The "voiceless" method involves using only a data plan for your mobile device and not paying for a voice plan. Some plan providers do offer the option of getting a monthly data plan without a voice plan. U.S. Cellular, for example, offers a personal unlimited data plan for $30/month without a voice plan. All you need is a device capable of accessing the internet and running a SIP client. A basic Blackberry should do the trick.
This gives you the mobility of a cell phone with all the advantages that come with having an internet data plan. You can check your e-mail and surf the web from anywhere. You get free unlimited incoming calls, free unlimited text messaging, and free outgoing calls as long as they're under 3 minutes.
The cost to you is the price of the data plan and the cost of extra outgoing minutes. Again, you can avoid the latter if you don't mind asking others to call you back. You'll also have the one-time cost of purchasing an internet-capable mobile device if you don't have one already.
3) Unlimited Everything Everywhere
Consider, now, what Google Voice means for T-Mobile users with a myFaves plan. List your Google Voice number as one of your "faves" and you will have effectively gained unlimited anytime minutes. All you need is the cheapest plan you can find that allows you to select "faves." These plans seem to run at $40 for single users and $70 for family plans. Each phone on the plan can have five "faves" which are numbers that cann be called an unlimited number of times with no additional cost. Five is four too many. If you also purchase the data plan which seems to be $40 and have an internet-capable phone, you'll get unlimited texting and internet usage.
Basically, this means that $80/month will get a single user unlimited everything. Who needs anytime minutes or texting packages?
Finally, do I recommend dropping everything and switching to Google Voice for all your phone needs? Only if you're willing to deal with the risks. Consider that you'll be relying heavily on both Google and Gizmo. Both of their products are experiencing something very new right now, and big changes may or may not be headed their way. Cell plan providers are also very likely to make serious changes because of this. If your current provider has been reliable and affordable, you should think twice before burning your bridges. Start out by requesting a Google Voice invitation and play around with it in combination with your current plan. Get used to it and let it mature for a while. After Google Voice and Gizmo5 have proven track records for reliable service - and your current cell contract expires - the extreme measures mentioned above will be much less risky.
I should also add that I have only personally tested method #1. I'd have to change my cell plan in order to try the others, so you'll have to look elsewhere for confirmation that they definitely work. If you do have any other questions about Google Voice, however, let me know and I'll do my best to find an answer. I'm willing to experiment.
Google Voice is currently only available via invitation. To request an invite to Google Voice, follow the link at the top of this page. I got mine in about a week.